Today, David Cameron lead the first ever Girl Summit in London, co-hosted by UNICEF, looking at issues of FGM and early forced marriage. Its aim is to mobilise domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation and child, early forced marriage (CEFM) in the UK and abroad within one generation. It will bring FGM and child marriage to the political agenda like never before - and it couldn't come soon enough, says Grazia's Zoe Beaty, who travelled to Mali with child right's charity Plan UK to meet women living with the excrutiating effects...
Sitting tentatively on her seat, 13-year-old Maria glances nervously around her. Just moments ago, she saw a woman who, when she was just seven, dragged her, screaming, to a nearby toilet in her village, in Mali, West Africa, and cut her genitals. Quietly, she tell us, ‘I was in so much pain, and lost so much blood. I thought I was dying.'
For Maria, and 140 million girls around the globe, the realities of female genital mutilation (FGM) are all too real. In the UK alone there are thought to be 66,000 women suffering the after effects of FGM, and a further 8,500 are at risk every week. The practice compromises of total or partial removal of the clitoris, and often cutting of the inner and outer labia, which are then sewn together. And consequences are grave: due to the unhygienic circumstances in which girls are cut - typically aged from seven years old to their early teens, with unsanitary blades and without anaesthetic - they immediately experience severe pain, shock, loss of blood and often infection. Later, they commonly develop urinary infections and difficultly passing water, extremely painful periods, sexual difficulties and gravely difficult child birth. Some cases even result in death.
This month, I visited Mali, West Africa, with child rights charity Plan, who are working diligently to stop the practice in Mali for good through their global campaign Because I Am A Girl. There, I met women and girls living with the painful after effects of a practice which is as unnecessary as it is damaging - women with psychological scarring, who had been traumatised and suffered painful physical effects. I met women who, because of the pain that FGM causes during sex, feared sleeping with their husbands - one was beaten every time she refused, weekly. I met another sweet, quiet woman who told us stoically that she had lost nine children because of the harmful effects in child birth. In Mali, FGM, or excision as it is known there, is still legal, despite constant calls to change the law - and a staggering 85 per cent of women experience FGM.
Maria is one of them. ‘I still remember the day I was excised. They grabbed me and then laid me down on the ground in the toilet - I begged them to let me go.’ She flinches as she speaks. ‘They held me down and cut me, I was losing a lot of blood. I was saying “you will kill me, you will kill me”. It was so painful. Now I am afraid when I think of that day.’
[Maria, in Mali. Photo: Plan]
Mamadou, a 60-year-old ex-cutter living in the same village, is the woman who excised Maria. ‘Girls would lose a lot of blood, or faint when we excised them,’ Mamadou tells us. She was trained to be a cutter by her mother in law when she married. ‘Some girls die when we excised them. We didn’t know that it was because of the excision - when the girls lost blood, we thought it was due to ghosts or devils.’
FGM is justified in Mali on grounds of cleanliness, protecting virginity and enhancing marriage prospects. But there are also dangerous old wives’ tales which perpetuate the practice through fear. Women are told that, during child birth, if the clitoris touches the head of the newborn baby for example, it will die. And there is such a taboo around the subject - FGM is rarely spoken of - that it was incredibly unusual that these women would speak about it at all. A lack of access to education is at the root of the problem - which is what Plan are trying to resolve.
‘Through meetings with Plan and ERAD [a local charity working towards abandonment of FGM], we realised the connection and started to understand the excision was the cause of the problems women experience,’ Mamadou said.
[Mamadou, an ex FGM practitioner in Mali. Photo: Plan]
On the day we visited, her village held an abandonment ceremony and swore out the practice that has caused so many women so much pain. Plan works over years, building relationships with villages by focussing on the rights of each individual child and teaching them the dangers of FGM with a view to abandoning the practice completely. And - despite political resistance in Mali to making FGM unlawful because of strong religious opposition - it’s working. Where Plan is involved, active FGM has dropped from 97 per cent to 46 per cent.
And there is hope that this number could drop even further. Education - of the traumatic physical and psychological effects of FGM, and of child rights - is the answer to abolishing it in Mali all over the world. With greater access to education, the cycle can be stopped - and women and girls can live healthier, fuller lives. Though FGM is intrinsically linked to patriotic rule and sexism - it is thought to have originated centuries ago when men wanted to control their wives’ sexuality and prevent them from having sex with another man when they were away from them - I was heartened to see that, in the villages we visited, the men supported abandonment wholly.
‘Before Plan came to our community, we had no idea that it was so harmful to women. We thought it was a good thing and didn’t know we would need to stop,’ says Ali, a resident in a village near to Kita who are working towards abandoning FGM for good. When asked about how FGM affects his sexual relationship with his wife - many types of FGM mean sex is painful and an orgasm is either impossible, or extremely difficult to achieve - he says he wants her to be happy. ‘I realise she does not like to have sex all the time,’ says Ali. ‘It is because of the excision.
‘I wish that these things had been discussed before. We don’t want to hurt [women].’
It showed me that things can - and must - change. And today, the Girl Summit marks a real turning point in the way the UK and the world sees FGM. It is unnecessary violence - nothing more than child abuse. Can we stop it in one generation? Plan UK CEO Tanya Barron says so.
‘The statistics are utterly shameful,’ she says. ‘Every two seconds another girl is forced or coerced into marriage. Every ten seconds a girl is at risk of female genital mutilation.
‘But if a girl knows her rights, and her community knows the risks, incidence of FGM will come down over time.’
She adds, ‘We can be proud of the UK’s record in working with communities around the world to end FGM, and I’m so pleased that the Prime Minister, supported by the Secretary of State for International Development, is to shine a spotlight on the issue of FGM at the Girl Summit. With the right commitment, we can end FGM in a generation.’
Let’s hope, for the sake of girls everywhere, that she’s right.
To support Plan UK's Because I Am A Girl campaign, visit: www.plan-uk.org. Buy this week's copy of Grazia to read more on this report and our interview with Prime Minister David Cameron on why the Girl Summit means so much to him.